First and foremost, I want to thank Sherry Harris for inviting me to blog here at Wicked Cozy Authors—and by “foremost,” I mean that the various elements of this sentence are ultimately the only things I’m going to write about here.
Sherry and I now live in the same small Northern Virginia town. It’s a suburb of Washington, DC, so part of a larger cosmopolitan community, but it’s an area that also has a small town feel. Sherry and I have run into each other at the grocery store parking lot, for example (I think that’s where she first asked me about the guest post here), and we’ve talked about trying to gather friends together more often for coffee or for trips to the park to ride the miniature train that my son so dearly loves. It’s a nice place to live in so many ways, and much of it has a hominess about it, and yet… and yet I couldn’t help but notice that the bio on Sherry’s own website notes that she and her husband “are living in northern Virginia until they figure out where they want to move to next,” and I know how often my wife Tara and I have mused about where we might like to live someday as well, as if our real homes are ultimately one of two places: where we once grew up or, specifically in our case, where we’d like our son to grow up. Maybe here, but (who knows?) maybe not.
I started thinking about these notions of where we’re from and where we are and where we’re going because of the subheading on the Wicked Cozy Authors page: “Mysteries with a New England Accent”—a tagline that has me doubly appreciating Sherry’s invitation for me to guest post here (and appreciating again Edith Maxwell and Barbara Ross hosting the Agatha finalists earlier this year) because, as anyone who’s ever heard me speak knows, I do not have a New England accent—and, important to my point here, neither does my fiction.
All of us who identify as mystery writers must surely find our works informed by the various traditions and rules of crime fiction; that term provides a large umbrella for various styles and approaches, of course, but suffice it to say that a person writing a traditional mystery must surely remain aware of the rules of a fair play mystery, of the weight of all the works in our genre that have preceded us. In a similar vein, it’s likely true that we may be defined by place—not only in terms of the settings we’ve chosen for our stories and novels but also by the places we’re from, the places we’ve lived, and maybe even (more on this in a minute) by previous literary works about those places.
Sherry’s Garage Sale Mysteries, for example, expressly draw on her years in Massachusetts as much as on her love of garage sales, and reading her work, I’m struck by how often place finds itself not just a character of sorts but also a guiding force in her writing. Early in Tagged for Death, at the first mention of the term “garage sale,” Sherry stops to add a parenthetical clarification: “tag sale, for those in the Northeast.” And it’s not long before we’ve also gotten a quick discussion of “Roast Beef and Pizza places… a New England thing,” and a short lesson clarifying that the Sleepy Hollow of Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane isn’t related to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery of Concord, Massachusetts, whose Authors Ridge has held the graves of Alcott, Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau (a spot which also plays a role in the closing pages of the book).
My own work is more likely to be grounded somehow in my native state of North Carolina. (My wife too is a writer, from Pennsylvania originally, and those PA roots often run deep in her own fiction.) The adventures in my recent book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories take those title characters—a small-time crook and his lover—across the country: Del’s supposed “last” heist takes place in Taos, New Mexico, before he begins a legit job with his sister in Victorville, California, and from there this unpredictable pair travel to Napa Valley, to Las Vegas, and to Williston, North Dakota. But along the way, it’s Louise’s voice, grounded in her own North Carolina upbringing, that drives the story, and its those various memories of the past—of her mother, of North Carolina’s sweet muscadine wines, of sucking the nectar from honeysuckles, of small town Southern life—that punctuate the tales and that gradually draw them back to Louise’s home state for the final story.
These observations—how Sherry’s novels and my stories and my wife’s stories too are all informed by place—might simply prove how some details of a story are byproducts of the more central roles that character and setting play in any work of fiction. But I’m curious beyond that.
The Southern literary tradition is a real one—it’s been endlessly studied, even if there are disagreements still about exactly how narrowly to define it—and I’m certain that other regions of the country might be able to trace themes and elements that have dominated and defined the literature of their areas, the mappable landscapes of their literature. But when we writers put pen to paper, how conscious are we of those geographical literary traditions? To circle back to the subheading on the Wicked Cozy Authors page, what does it mean for a mystery to have a “New England Accent” or a Southern accent or whatever? (New York patter? Chicago twang? California surfer speak? …by which I’m not just talking about dialogue, of course.)
To answer that question, I’ve…
Whoops! Sherry just pointed out that I’ve hit my word count here! Oh, well.
Anyone else want to chime in with their own thoughts on this in the comments section? I’d love to chat more, clearly—whatever accent you’re bringing to the conversation.
A native of Richlands, NC, Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, recently published by Henery Press, and the editor of Murder Under the Oaks, the 2015 Bouchercon Anthology. His short fiction has won two Agatha Awards, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards. His story “The Odds Are Against Us” is currently a finalist for this year’s Anthony and Macavity Awards. Art teaches at George Mason University and writes frequently on crime fiction for both the Washington Post and Mystery Scene. www.arttaylorwriter.com.
Readers: What is the answer to Art’s question — “When we writers put pen to paper, how conscious are we of those geographical literary traditions?” Writers, how much do you put into this? Readers, are you drawn to books set in a particular region? Which region?